Over the past few weeks and months, you may have noticed a new form of activism stealthily creeping in to subvert advertising with different messages and slogans. The disruptive medium, also known as ‘subvertising’, is often as humorous as it is unnerving.
Anti-advertising book ‘Advertising Shits In Your Head’ is a thoroughly researched and referenced publication and describes in the first part how outdoor advertising is hugely undemocratic as well as incredibly harmful to both the individual and society. In the second part the book looks at the various strategies of subvertising bodies Public Ad Campaign, Brandalism, Dr. D and Special Patrol Group, and explores the history of subvertising as a form of culture jamming that has its roots in the Situationist International.
“Once advertising has shit in your head, you’re going to need something to clean it up with; I couldn’t recommend this book more highly.” – Dr. D
Dog Section Press is currently crowdfunding for the printing costs of Advertising Shits In Your Head – you can get involved here:
We were lucky to get this ace interview from Dog Section Press Editor Vyvian Raoul about the ideas and manifestations of this new wave of artivism.
What’s your beef with advertising?
The first part of the book deals with the subvertising movement’s various objections to advertising – outdoor advertising, particularly. The title actually comes from a STRIKE! Magazine article by Bill Posters – founder of Brandalism – which explains why they take action against outdoor advertising. Advertising is all around us, all the time, shitting in our heads – or at least filling them up with imperatives to purchase. Advertising makes us unhappy because it plays on our desires, and you can’t desire something if you don’t feel you lack something first. Once it’s aroused our desire it ends up making us work more and take on more debt in pursuit of its false promises – the book reveals a direct link between advertising-spend and hours worked.
Another part of the objection to outdoor advertising is that, unlike print, tv or even internet advertising, you can’t choose not to see it. Outdoor advertising is literally sold on the fact that its ubiquity makes it almost inescapable – television no longer holds its former monopoly on people’s attention, but we must all still inevitably traverse the urban terrain. So there are questions over the democratic control of our environment – what David Harvey calls “rights to the city” – to be answered also.
Who’s featured in the book?
Advertising Shits In Your Head is about the modern subvertising movement, which has its roots in the detournment practices of the Situationist International. The book looks at the history of the practice, starting with the Situationists; the first organised subvertising groups were BUGA.UP in Australia, who appear around 1973, and the Billboard Liberation Front in San Francisco, who make their first billboard improvements in 1977.
We also look at three modern case studies: Public Ad Campaign, Brandalism and Special Patrol Group. Those three groups were selected for their similarities in theoretical outlook, particularly they way they’ve tried to spread the form. In addition there’s an Idiots Guide to Billboard Takeovers by London based subvertiser Dr. D and lots of lovely images of recent subvertising takeovers from people like Hogre, Spelling Mistakes Cost Lives, Black Lives Matter, Sisters Uncut, Veterans for Peace etc.
And you’re currently crowdfunding for its printing costs?
That’s right, Dog Section Press is a not-for-profit publisher, so crowdfunding makes sense for this sort of project. Our first title was a book about squatting: we’re not printing things that are necessarily profitable, but we are printing stuff we feel is important. Advertising Shits In Your Head has already had quite a bit of advance praise, which has been really nice; oddly Professor Richard Wilkinson – co-author of The Spirit Level – made a donation the other day!
What makes people make these pieces?
The really great thing is that although this is not a particularly co-ordinated movement, there has definitely been a major upswing of subvertising in the last few years. So I’d guess there’d be all sorts of motivations for creating subverts. For some it might just be an opportunity to display their work in a prominent public place (the beauty of taking over advertising spaces is that they’re always situated for maximum impact. If I was an artist, I’d very definitely be thinking about displaying my work in public spaces like these rather than a traditional gallery setting.) and for others it might be for more overtly political reasons – then I’d guess there’d be a whole range of people who sit along that spectrum.
Is there any unifying idea or political/anarchic thread that ties subvertising artists together?
Subvertising is a portmanteau of subversion and advertising, and so it can be defined as any action that subverts advertising – whether that’s the Adbusters style brand hijacks or attacking the sites of (outdoor) advertising themselves. Within that broad definition there will be a whole range of objections to advertising, from seeing it as a part of capitalist propaganda to protesting its dominance of our shared aesthetic terrain. There might be objections about the private ownership of public space, or environmental concerns around its promotion of unsustainable consumerism.
Advertising Shits In Your Head is partly based on Special Patrol Group’s #AdHackManifesto and that is an attempt to unify objections against outdoor advertising and, ultimately, have it banned. Or, at least, it’s intended to provoke a conversation about democracy in our public spaces, especially in our cities. Recently there have been political interventions from Sisters Uncut and Protest Stencil, as well as Brandalism and Hogre. And then there are people who use the sites of advertising to display their work, like The Flower Guy and Vasilisa Forbes. But all of these involve a reclaiming, a re-imagining, of public/private space, so I’d say there’s something inherently political that connects them all.
You say it’s a movement – how can other people get involved?
The #AdHackManifesto says that removing/replacing/defacing advertising is both legally and morally defensible, so everyone should just feel free to go out and take their own direct action. The crux of civil disobedience is acting like you’re already free, so if you don’t like something, take it down or mess with it. All of the subvertising groups in the book make efforts to spread the form around: Brandalism and Special Patrol Group both have online guides to hacking bus stops, and Special Patrol Group and Public Ad Campaign have various keys available to buy that will help with that. Jordan Seiler of Public Ad Campaign is pretty handy with a welding torch by now, and if you spot a lock that he hasn’t made a key for yet, he’ll do his damnedest to whip one up and make it available to all.
Special Patrol Group have actually just done their first Ad Hack Workshop, a training session that includes a look at the theory behind subvertising as well as practical instruction. They’ve installed a bus stop advertising cabinet at DIY Space for London and are now running monthly sessions; apparently they’ve been incredibly popular: the first one sold out so they’ve put another one on pre-Christmas on 5th December.
That said, I think they’d be the first to say: you don’t really need training, you should probably just go out and do it.